Consumer research beyond the household: theoretical and methodological insights from entering the “messy” extended family network

Caroline Marchant, Stephanie O'Donohoe, Ben Marder

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Whilst Arnould & Thompson (2005, p.875) suggest that family is an important influence on consumer culture, shaping ‘…consumer experience and identities in the myriad messy contexts of everyday life’, they do not define what is meant by family in all its messiness. Studies taking the family as a unit of consumption still tend to focus on traditional nuclear households, emphasising decision-making in dyadic relationships such as parent (usually mother) and child, husband and wife or, more recently, siblings (Commuri & Gentry 2000, Kerrane & Hogg 2013). However, increasingly across the social sciences family has been recognised more as ‘extraordinarily flexible, negotiated and experiential’ (Miller 2007, p.551), in that everyday interactions and relationships challenge (or support) traditional cultural constructs of family. Further, Barnhart et al. (2014) suggest that family involves ‘being and doing’; multiple generations connected via shared practices which can even involve ‘informal’ family members, unconnected by blood, yet bonded through ongoing friendship and support. Huff & Cotte (2016, p.23) agree with the notion of family as ‘a state of being and a process of doing’; they highlight how collective ‘doing’ helps establish the boundaries of family networks, challenging traditional views of a stable family form. Ekström (2010, p.55) also characterises family as ‘a flux of transformations in a continuously changing society’ which is better understood at any point in time by focusing on its ‘activities and consumption practices’. Nonetheless, the extended family's being and doing has received little attention in consumer research despite calls for greater acknowledgement of inter-generational influence on consumers’ choices (Moore et al. 2002). Commuri & Gentry (2000, p.16) suggest that consumer research beyond dyadic family relationships may be limited because ‘family and family consumer behaviour are, no doubt, complex and “messy” areas compared to individual decision making’. This may explain why ‘fewer studies consider family practices among extended (or non-co-resident) family members’ (Timonen & Arber 2012, p.247). Law (2004, p.2) argues that research methods should be adapted to address precisely those diffuse ‘messy and complex’ places. This paper, then, focuses on what is being missed theoretically by continuing to take a narrow view of family in consumer research and what methodological challenges are posed by a broader approach. Recent family research has begun to include more intra-generational studies around sibling children, highlighting their impact on purchase decision-making, identity development and the start of de-identification within the family (Kerrane et al. 2012, Kerrane & Hogg 2013, Smetana et al. 2015). Including siblings opens up a ‘rich context of intra-familial interaction’ (Kerrane et al. 2012, p. 829) yet such studies have not embraced a broader intergenerational approach. Older family members are often considered separately from the rest of family and little consideration is given to terms like ‘older adults’, ‘older’, ‘aged’, ‘elderly’ or ‘third generation’. It is usually implicit and defined by broad demographics; for example Mathur’s (1999) definition of old age spans those aged 50-80. Huff & Cotte (2016, p.18) explore the gap in understanding how ‘senior family’ is performed, noting that the ways family members interact with each other are deep-rooted; ‘for senior families, family history is rich; parents and their children have had many years to do family together’. However, the third generation is often seen as needy rather than positively engaged within the family, despite increasing numbers of active ‘baby boomers’. Further, Timonen & Arber (2012, p.11) argue that a deeper, qualitative understanding of ‘the bi-directional influences within grandparent-grandchildren relationships’ is required. Inter-generational research tends to take the perspective of one generation; for example in dyadic studies of parent and child, the voice of the middle generation parent is usually given priority at the expense of either the third generation or the child (Marshall et al. 2010). The middle generation mother is often assumed to still play the kin-keeping role, promoting and protecting family relationships and acting as gate-keeper for many domestic decisions and purchases (Tarrant 2012). Marshall et al. (2014, p.1673) see the fathers’ role as involving greater multiplicity and fragmentation in recent years: they note that fathers may be acknowledged as more nurturing, caring and involved, yet they are still expected to maintain the ‘hegemonic gender order’ as breadwinner. However, the middle generation mother remains the focus of consumer research and is assumed to be pivotal; fathers (and grandfathers) remain largely overlooked (Bettany et al. 2014, Marshall et al. 2014). To date, research spanning three generations has tended to be quantitative, such as adaptations of Bengston & Roberts’ (1991) influential intergenerational solidarity model. Epp & Price (2008, p. 51) stress that family research often ignores the collective nature of family identitiy/ies and should consider the ‘ebbs and flows’ of relations between different family members as they co-construct dynamic ‘family identity bundles’. This approach moves away from a static and structured view of family to recognise individuals, their inter-relationships and how these shape collective family and allow families to be viewed beyond forms, households, generations or geographic borders. The household itself, instead of physically constraining the extent of family, becomes just another ‘tool for co-creating consumption experience’ as everyday interactions become key to understanding the doing and shaping of family (Epp & Price 2008). Similarly, Kerrane et al. (2012, p.1527) argue that ‘often family spills out beyond the boundary of the household life spans a range of generations and concomitant consumption issues.’ Overall, then, there appears to be some tension in the consumer research literature between the narrow view of family offered by studies of dyadic parent/child relationships and the many calls for broader understanding of extended family network interactions (Huff & Cotte 2016; Epp & Price 2008, 2014; Ekström 2010). Failure to consider inter-generational relationships, extending beyond a single household, in the ‘myriad messy contexts of everyday life’ (Arnould & Thompson 2005) limits our ability to understand the dynamics of family identities and consumption practices (Epp et al. 2008). This paper reflects on a study responding to these concerns by taking a family network identity bundle approach, including three generations of family and more distant family members – siblings, nieces/nephews, cousins and (great) aunts/uncles - in the being and doing of family. Methodologically, entering the extended family was indeed messy and time-consuming, requiring reflexivity regarding researcher “insider” status and obligation in particular. More practically, it demanded a great deal of time, patience, flexibility and compromise. The data generation process involved the first researcher working initially with five friends to gain insider access (Chavez 2008) into each of their self-defined inter-generational families, in order to explore the integration of personal communications technologies (PCT) into consumption practices within their family networks (Shove et al. 2012). She managed to enter the ‘slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct’ world of the extended family network (Law 2004, p.2) as the study encompassed 50 direct and 91 indirect participants. The inevitable reciprocity of researcher/participant friendship was both a burden and a benefit. The first researcher was fully aware that the reflected trust of the friend was central to encouraging participation from others and may have involved the friend calling in favours, leaving her more indebted to her family. Thus, the researcher felt obligation and gratitude to both the friend for helping with research and introductions and to the extended family members for taking part. It is important to acknowledge that like ripples in a pond, the researcher’s insider status rapidly diminished as the family diversified; she quickly found herself dealing with strangers, and playing more of an outsider role. However, the warmth of the researcher’s relationships with the friends who provided initial access tended to facilitate rapport with wider family members. To some extent the researcher’s position in the research process mirrors that of Chevez (2008), who drew on her own family for her research and notes how she felt much more of an insider with her immediate family but very much an outsider with her extended family. In this study there was some limited insider understanding of sensitive family dynamics such as recent bereavements and family histories/politics which often helped to tread carefully around familial ‘sacred places’ (Chavez 2008). Avoiding potential issues could be seen as a limitation of the approach as avenues may not have been fully explored for fear of offending the friend or their family. There were also potential ethical issues, as the researcher sometimes knew of issues, such as mental health problems, but had to wait for this information to be volunteered by participants themselves, or abide by their decision not to discuss such details. Ultimately this did not seem to be a problem in writing up the findings as the subject area was not controversial but if the area of study was more sensitive, such as relationship issues, it may be much more challenging. The first researcher managed to gain a more etic position by not directly being part of the family and Sherif (2001) advocates such a ‘partial insider’ role as the best of both worlds. A partial insider knows participants well but maintains a certain etic position which was important during the research process to avoid assumptions and family bias during data analysis and comparison. In qualitative studies of consumption, researchers often use purposive sampling from their own ‘personal networks’ but the implications of using such participants have rarely been considered. Overall, this study openly acknowledged the role of friendship in consumer research, its benefits and challenges. To fully understand all influences on the shaping of data, greater consideration should be given to the dynamics of the researchers-participants’ (changing) relationships throughout the qualitative consumer research methodologies (Marchant & O’Donohoe 2015). A practice theory approach was taken, involving two stages (individual daily PCT diaries, recording contact with family and follow up individual/group interviews) across multiple family members, minimising the risk of privileging any individual, generation or gendered voice in seeking to understand the collective being and doing of family in relation to PCT. It took the first researcher time to understand complex inter-relationships and despite the help of the friend, to contact, explain and motivate individuals/family groups. Flexibility and compromise were required in a number of ways as the researcher often had to drop everything to fit in with busy family timetables (and time-zones). Inevitably perhaps, more distant relatives did not spend as much time on diaries as desired or were more relaxed about honouring interview times – so the first researcher had to be prepared to be flexible with timing, be patient and persuasive and also utilise a variety of preferred channels for interview from in person and traditional landline to mobile/smartphone, and Skype. Some participants were more comfortable being interviewed with other family members who proved very helpful in understanding family dynamics and gaining different points of view. For example, some participants in the third generation stressed they were ‘luddites’ with technology, yet in the group interviews it was often revealed that they were central to email communications across the family - surprising themselves and highlighting a perception-action gap, not only in their use of PCT but in their central communications role within the family network. It quickly became clear that the researcher could be more focused and responsive to family members by researching each family network sequentially otherwise the combination of juggling five complex families, different generations and varying life styles/stages was potentially confusing. It also took time to hear all the stories of busy lives, the family histories, the shared memories and frequently consuming copious amounts of tea and cake whilst doing so. Devoting time and being patient throughout the data generation phase contributed to a sense of trust and openness in discussion with family members and enhanced understanding of the warmth and engagement across the family but it also contributed to the messiness, frustration and need for patience of the researcher. This felt, however, a price worth paying for the privilege of being admitted into the five family networks in the study. In one sense, the findings reinforced traditional notions of family, since apart from one couple who included long-time friends and one child who included her dog, family was consistently defined as blood or marriage relations. However, it was the strength of emotional connection, practical interactions and/or shared interests which shaped and defined the closeness of family relationships and the extent of shared consumption. The findings highlighted the limitations of the traditional dyadic approach to researching families. The interaction between the three generations and across households showed the extent and complexity of family network relationships. Even in the cosiest of middle-aged/class households, extended families quickly diversified to incorporate much more heterogeneous life stages and circumstances. There were nominated family ‘experts’ influencing consumption choices, generational and gender stereotypes were often challenged (eg around technological expertise and usage) and there was a desire for regular updates, surveillance and comparison between in-laws, cousins and more distant family members. More generally, it was striking how well these inter-generational, extended family members knew each other’s circumstances and how often they consulted each other for advice and in the planning/organisation of family events; even where individuals felt they were not actively engaged in family decision-making or consumption practices, others often described ways in which they did have an influence. By considering the role of PCT within family networks, the study has shed light on previously under-researched, yet powerful family relationships and roles, such as between grandparent and grandchild and the middle generation’s coordination and juggling of responsibilities between the younger and older generations. The implications of this for consumer research are far-reaching. As families are increasingly able to communicate, share, bond and play together via PCT, it becomes more important to consider the wider family network, avoiding artificial boundaries around family such as households, geographic locations or focusing on particular generations or genders. Such boundaries may be convenient for the researcher but they do not seem to reflect contemporary family definitions, dynamics or practices. As with a jigsaw, it is hard to see the bigger picture by looking at one or two pieces without reference to the many others which make up the whole. There is certainly scope for exploring the wider family picture, beyond narrow dyadic relationships, in examining consumption within families. Of course there still existed ‘silent’ voices in this study of family, as some chose not to take part or were excluded by others. Nonetheless, it ventured further towards the ‘fringes and edges of our focus’ in researching family consumption (Maclaren & Hogg 2009, p.1). 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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2017
Event9th Workshop on Interpretive Consumer Research - University of Stockholm, Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 27 Apr 201728 Apr 2017


Conference9th Workshop on Interpretive Consumer Research


  • consumer research
  • Family


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